The COVID-19 Pandemic caused the worst education disruption in human history. It brought learning to a halt across the globe. UNESCO data revealed that more than 1.6 billion students in over 190 countries were not attending school at the height of the crisis. The sudden closure of schools affected over 100 million teachers and school staff. Half of the world's students (more than 800 million) are still affected by partial or complete school closings.
People who were marginalized before the Pandemic were now more at risk when it started. Multiple forms of discrimination and exclusion resulted from intersectionality with poverty, gender, ethnicity, or age.
COVID19 brought new pressures to the education sector, such as the unavailability of infrastructure to support the previously marginalized. This is why all sectors of the education system must consider everyone when dealing with the challenges brought by the Pandemic. To ensure inclusive and effective learning, it is crucial to acknowledge the fact that a divide exists. Once there is acknowledgment, only then do we take bold actions towards bridging the gap.
Inclusive classrooms have become more important as our awareness of people, cultures, and societies grow. Exposure also provides us with a lot of information -- which is not always good to have as people's beliefs can be misinterpreted, leading to prejudices and stereotypes about certain people. This can cause them to become isolated from access to general education.
Teachers and students need to understand that there is no such thing as being "better than" or "worse than" someone or something. It is okay to be different. Positive learning environments are a great way to make everyone feel welcomed. A learning environment that allows learners of all abilities to feel at ease and thrive. Therefore, it is crucial that inclusive learning is promoted.
i) Special Needs Assistance: Children with special needs will most often require constant attention & assistance from their teachers. All proposed solutions for hybrid education models that overcome current challenges should also be able to accommodate students with disabilities.
ii) Less Social Interaction: COVID-19 has made BIG changes in children's lives. Schools were closed, and digital homeschooling was introduced. Schools, which are a place for academic learning, also provide an opportunity for socialization, development, and connection with peers and friends. Teachers can also offer emotional and academic support, crucial for children's psychological well-being and adjustment. Evidence suggests that loneliness and other health-related behaviors were associated with social isolation during the Pandemic. Two Chinese studies, for example, show that children and teens experienced more anxiety and depression during the initial phase of the Pandemic. Children who were worried about the virus were more likely to suffer from symptoms of depression than those who were not worried or slightly concerned about getting infected. Research from North America has shown that COVID-19-related stress and worry, along with digital time with friends, was associated with greater loneliness and depression among adolescents. However, homework was positively associated with depression, so it acted as a buffer.
iii) Accessibility: Half of the world's population (3.6 billion people) still do not have an internet connection. This means remote learning is not possible for at least 463 million students, or almost one-third, worldwide. Apart from this, there is a lack of online learning policies and equipment required to connect from home. As a result, many students lack the necessary connectivity, devices, and digital skills to access educational content dependent on technology.
UN estimates that nearly 500 million students in pre-primary through upper-secondary schools did not have access to remote learning. Three-quarters of them lived in rural areas or poor income homes.
iv) Reasonable accommodation for remote learning: All learners must have easy access to a curriculum that follows the principles of Universal Design for Learning. This includes reasonable accommodations and differentiation, both now and after returning to school. Students with print disabilities can use the internet to study in various formats, such as text to audio and Braille characters. However, not all education systems use the affordable technologies available for students. Schools should consider resources like Bookshare or The Global Digital Library to help students with print disabilities.
Some countries, like Finland and South Africa, have considered the needs of learners with disabilities or learning differences by ensuring that support services are available in times of crisis. This Pandemic offers an opportunity to ensure that all can access remote learning and that more & more individualized support is provided.
With growing popularity, the benefits of offering an inclusive education to all children have been proven. When it is done well, inclusive education is extremely important because:
Inclusive education makes all children truly feel that they can be part of the community. They feel connected and are better prepared to live in the community as adults and children.
It offers more opportunities to learn. Learning in a class with other children is a great way to motivate children with different abilities.
Combined, all children have higher expectations. Inclusion is about recognizing and utilizing the individual's gifts and strengths.
It allows children to share their goals with others while working independently amongst students their age.
It encourages parents to be involved in their children's education and the activities of their local schools.
It promotes a culture that values belonging and respect. It allows individuals to accept and learn about their differences.
To change curriculums & make them more welcoming and equitable for their students. Following changes should be made:
Not assuming that students have prior knowledge of course topics and providing additional instructional support to students will go a long way in creating inclusive classrooms.
Supporting students to use earlier editions of textbooks and eliminating expensive course materials.
Highlighting diverse people in the field
Developing collaborative classroom guidelines together with students;
Students who cannot attend class due to health reasons or any other reason should be given alternative assignments.
With the demand for inclusive classrooms increasing, the need to find a way to accommodate all students most efficiently and effectively is also increasing. Apart from accessible EdTech, these are the important features and practices that will ensure inclusive education is a success.
Accepting all children in regular classes and school life unconditionally.
To ensure that every child can attend school and class, maximum support must be provided to teachers and children.
All children should be encouraged to see what they can achieve, rather than what they are unable to do.
Each child has different learning abilities, so it is important to set education goals accordingly. Children do not need to have the same educational goals to learn together in regular classes.
Designing schools and classes so that children learn and reach their full potential. For example, creating comprehensive class timetables allows for more individual attention for each student providing them with a personalized learning experience.
Strong leadership from school principals and other administrators to ensure inclusion.
Appointing teachers to know about teaching methods so that children of different abilities and strengths can learn together.
Principals, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders should work together to find the best ways to provide quality education in an inclusive setting.
Everyone in the class gains from inclusion strategies when they are executed well. It improves the ability to work together, appreciate and value other points of view, think critically and become successful learners.
A welcoming environment not only help students with learning difficulties, but also benefit students without learning differences. It will make them more open-minded, understanding, and compassionate.